What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

It’s a question that comes up a lot when I talk to friends and family about my treatment, and I myself was confused by the two at first as well.

The differences might vary according to country, but in Australia here are the main similarities and differences between the two:

Psychologist

  • provides psychotherapy (different types depending on their training and preferences)
  • cannot prescribe medication
  • cannot admit people to hospital

Psychiatrist

  • trained as a doctor
  • can prescribe medicine
  • can admit people to hospital
  • provides psychotherapy

(the above information is from the healthdirect)

Both are able to treat a wide variety of mental illnesses. The biggest difference really is that one is a doctor and one is not (although psychologists are still trained professionals with university qualifications).

Psychologists primarily deal with therapy and if someone is seeing a psychologist they will need to see another doctor, normally their GP, if they require medication.

Psychiatrists are able to fulfill the role of both doctor and therapist. While most GPs will provide mental health care plans, refer people to psychologists for therapy and might prescribe anti-depressants or other medications, more severe mental illnesses are normally referred to a psychiatrist because they specialise in the medications required to treat brain disorders.

It isn’t always a question of seeing one or the other, either. I, like a lot of people with serious or chronic mental illness, have both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. My psychiatrist prescribes my medications and carefully monitors how each one affects my moods and functioning. When I’m stable, I usually just go to my GP for new prescription repeats. If medications start causing problems for me or they aren’t working, I go back to my psychiatrist so she can tweak the dose or try something else. She’s the expert.

Psychiatrists are a bit more scarce and harder to get an appointment with than psychologists though, so although my psychiatrist provides a little bit of therapy for me – mostly talk therapy – she refers me to psychologists to carry out the bulk of the mental therapy work. Psychologists can be trained in a range of therapy techniques but often will have a preference for a particular one or a particular type of illness or problem.

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